How one woman survived the ‘terrifying ordeal’ of Beechwood children’s home to become an inspector
But Joni Cameron-Blair says her concerns about abuse were not acted on
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As someone who both lived in and inspected children’s homes in Nottingham, Joni Cameron-Blair has a unique viewpoint on the scandal of mistreatment in those homes. Here she tells her story – and reveals her hopes for the full inquiry taking place later this year.
Cast your mind back, if you are old enough to do so, to the Royal Wedding of 1981.
It was a fine day, with plenty of sunshine, and a special enough occasion for it to warrant a national holiday.
You might have been glued to the television watching the ceremony at St Paul’s Cathedral; or chatting to your neighbours at a friendly street party; or doing something else entirely, just glad that the wedding of Charles and Diana meant a day off work.
Joni Cameron-Blair remembers that day, Wednesday July 29, very clearly. She was 15, and a relatively new resident at the Beechwood children’s home in Mapperley.
But her own memories are as far removed from most people’s recollections of that day as can be imagined.
In honour of the Royal Wedding, a staff member had brought a trolley with sandwiches into the room where the kids in the home were going to watch the event on television.
“This boy was having sandwiches,” says Joni, now 52, “and a member of staff spat in his food.
“The boy threw the plate of sandwiches, in a temper. The plate hit me on the side of the face, and cut my face.
“Before I could gather myself, this boy had been dragged to the floor – and there were several staff members just kicking the hell out of him in front of me.
“I didn’t see that boy for several days afterwards. I wanted to tell him I didn’t blame him, but when I did see him he…well, he certainly wasn’t himself. Let’s just say that.”
It was just one of many appalling incidents of violence which Joni, from Clifton, says she witnessed in her ten weeks in the home over that summer of 1981.
She had been admitted to Beechwood after it was decided that it wasn’t safe for her to stay at her family home with her violent father.
“I was having problems at home,” she says. “My father had a mental health issue and he was drinking heavily.
“It exacerbated his violence, and because I was having problems within the family home I was also presenting difficulties at school.
“One day I had been naughty at school, and when I got home I got an almighty beating from my father, which resulted in a head injury.
“I was taken into the QMC. I’d been hit with the blunt part of an axe on the back of my skull, and I’d been unconscious.
“So they hospitalised me, during which time I saw a social worker. And this social worker referred me onto another social worker, who collected me from hospital, and took me to the police station.”
Joni says that, while being interviewed about her father’s assault on her, she was made to strip so the police officer could see her injuries, and was then sexually assaulted by the officer.
“The social worker then came into the room, and I was taken back into his office. I was told I was being taken into a home called Beechwood.”
There were three units at Beechwood, and she was admitted to the Redcot unit.
She was taken there because it wasn’t safe for her to go back and live with her father, who was still in the family home, and she says: “I understand that part of it, I totally accept it.”
But what happened next at the home in Woodborough Road made her own violent and threatening house seem like the safest of havens in comparison.
“It was the most terrifying ordeal I have ever had,” she says. “There was so much violence, it was just normal.
“Staff would routinely punch children in the face. They would kick children down the stairs, spit in their food, spit in their faces, pull children round by the hair. That’s just the way it was.”
Her ordeal began as soon as she arrived at the home. Beechwood was, at various times, an approved school, an assessment centre, and a remand home – and her room reflected those previous uses.
“I was taken to what I thought was going to be a bedroom,” she says, “but it wasn’t, it was a cell.
“There were two cells side-by-side on the first floor. I was placed in that cell.
“There was no toilet, there was no sink, and you could only open the window very slightly because of external bars. Why those cells were being used in that way, I don’t know.
“The days and nights were very long, very confusing, and very disorientating. Days rolled into other days, and you lost all sense of time. I remember being in there probably from mid-afternoon right up to late morning the next day.”
She says that over the following days and weeks, getting out of the room depended on whether she was being taken to school that day, and sometimes who was on duty.
And if the physical abuse was shocking, Joni says there was also sexual abuse within the home.
Children did try to abscond, but when they did so they would be brought back and face further humiliation and physical punishment from the staff.
There was one female member of staff who Joni felt was a genuine carer, and tried to do the right thing. But she added: “She was drowning, because the majority of people around her were beating kids and doing awful things.”
During the ten weeks she was there, she says she had visits from her mum once a week, outside the main building itself, and one arranged visit with both her parents.
“My mother knew I was absolutely terrified, I think that was quite obvious. She knew I was traumatised, and she fought very hard to get me out.
“I told my social worker how frightened I was. I told a psychiatrist how frightened I was of the violence going on in the unit. But nobody did anything.”
After ten weeks, a hearing was held and she was allowed to return home. But the physical abuse from her father continued, and she left home soon afterwards.
That could have been the end of the story. But over a decade later Joni, who had got married and had a family, heard an advert on the radio asking for people who had experience of the care system to become lay inspectors for residential homes.
She applied successfully, and in 1994 started working for the Service Standards Unit – an arms-length inspection unit based in Waverley Street – as part of three-person teams inspecting both adult and children’s homes in the city and county. It was a voluntary role to start with, although she later became paid.
Part of her role was to interview the residents and their families.
On the visits, she says she did form different opinions to many of the other inspectors, who had formal social work qualifications.
But she says she saw “very soon” that there was something wrong in many of the children’s homes she inspected.
Children told her they were being abused, and she says she documented her concerns that different forms of abuse were taking place, but she felt her concerns often didn’t make it into the final written versions of the inspection reports.
She says that at one home, the mother of a disabled girl told her that her daughter had been raped in the home, and Joni took a full statement from the mother; but that the only action taken was that the girl was bathed and the sheets on her bed were changed.
She says she challenged why her concerns were not being published, with various people within the Service Standards Unit, and was told to take it to a higher level.
“They all got sick and tired of me,” she says. “I didn’t share the same opinion as the majority of inspectors.
“But then I would go back to that home and I’d see a particular member of staff still employed.
“The same things happened over and over again. I was just repeating myself the whole time. And the picture began to emerge that nothing was actually happening.”
She says she would sometimes be told that there wasn’t enough evidence to take it further – but she disputes this was the case.
“You’d only got to see the way these people were behaving – quite openly – sexually towards children, and violently towards children. A lot of this wasn’t hidden.”
To make her concerns known at a higher level, she says she then joined local authority panels involved in children and families, where she could air her views to senior managers at the council.
“I would speak to these people and say how concerned I was at the state of these children’s homes and the management of them.
“I had children being stamped on, children having to defecate and urinate out of windows through being in locked facilities, children being denied food and fluids, children climbing on roofs to escape their abusers. And that was very evident to anybody going into those homes.
“I made it very clear to these people what I was witnessing. I took it to panels and explained it was of the most serious nature, and still they found a way to not act on it.”
She also felt her concerns were sometimes ‘diluted’ when they appeared in the minutes of these panel meetings, and she would be offered a further meeting with a senior manager, before these meetings would be cancelled.
On one occasion she said an independent investigator was called in to look at specific concerns about one home, but by the time this was carried out, the physical evidence of abuse had gone. She also says she tried to go to the police, but was told it was “not her role” to do so.
After a final fraught meeting over the independent report that had been carried out, in 2000, she says she threatened to go to the media and was told to leave. That was the end of her career as an inspector.
Joni went on to work in various jobs in the private care sector, although she never got her inspection career back on track.
Her father died, and Joni says that he “recognised what he had done, he just wasn’t man enough to admit it; but I think he struggled with what he had done.”
But there was one final twist to the tale.
When Joni had told her mum back in 1981 what had happened to her at the police station, she says her mum went to the station to complain, but was dealt with by the very same officer who was the subject of the complaint, and the complaint “just didn’t go anywhere”.
Then in around 2011, she says she made a further attempt to make a formal complaint, and rang the police about it, but was told that the officer was now too ill to be interviewed.
In 2016, however, she came face-to-face with the officer when she bumped into him on the street.
“I remember seeing this man coming towards me, and he looked strikingly familiar. I could tell it was him.”
She then heard him speak, and that dispelled any doubts that it was the same man, 35 years on.
“What went through my mind? Despair. Anger. Uncertainty. Lots of different emotions.”
She didn’t approach him, but says she rang the police to ask why the man could not be interviewed; eventually, he was, but she says never received an explanation on the full outcome of the interview.
But later, she bumped into him again – and this time she spoke to him. “I had my day. I got to say what I thought of him. And that was it, really.”
Earlier this month, Joni was notified that she is receiving £5,000 from the county council in relation to the “abuse and maltreatment” perpetrated against her when she was in Beechwood.
And now, with a full inquiry into the council responses to the sexual abuse due to take place in Nottingham and London this October, how does she feel?
She hopes the truth will be uncovered, and that individuals will be brought to account.
https://get.convrse.media/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.nottinghampost.com%2Fnews%2Flocal-news%2Fhow-one-woman-survived-terrifying-1268594&cre=bottom&cip=83“This is not children just accidentally and unfortunately being abused by people who kept it very quiet. This was open abuse, through however many children’s homes, year after year after year.
“People knew about it, and they can’t say they didn’t know about it. I feel revulsion at how this can happen, and the concealment of it.